The final debate looked, at first, like it could have been pretty normal. At the start, there were some Trumpy moments — but for the most part, it appeared like both candidates, thanks to Trump’s slightly better behavior, were going to mostly stick to the issues.
Then Trump happened. By the end of the debate, Trump had insulted Latino immigrants in Spanish, continued to say that he would not concede the election if he lost, and called Clinton “such a nasty woman.”
In many ways, it was a fitting end to what’s been a very odd election season. But it also offered yet another reminder that we are living in very strange times.
So here’s what you need to know coming out of tonight’s debate.
Before the debate began, Trump appeared to tease Trump TV
Thirty minutes before the debate, Trump’s Facebook page went live with a video. It ran with the message: “If you’re tired of biased, mainstream media reporting (otherwise known as Crooked Hillary’s super PAC), tune into my Facebook Live broadcast. Starts at 8:30 EST/5:30 PST -- you won't want to miss it. Enjoy!” The ensuing show had its own anchors and guests.
For any other candidate, this may come off as unremarkable. But Trump’s wording, the original anchors and guests, and ongoing rumors suggest this is a tease of “Trump TV” — a business venture Trump might launch after his failed presidential bid.
While Trump and his team do not appear capable of winning a general election in the United States, they certainly have the right mix of skills and experience to operate a successful media company, folding the existing Breitbart and Hannity franchises together with the Trump brand to form Trump TV or Trump Media.
Trump’s people, for their part, haven’t done much to dispel the rumors. Here’s what Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon said recently, according to CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s newsletter:
Bannon did not deny talk about a potential "Trump TV" network or streaming service. When asked if there is anything to the rumors, Bannon responded with a smile and said, "Trump is an entrepreneur." He repeated the answer again later. "Trump is an entrepreneur." He also pointed out Trump's social media prowess on Facebook and Twitter. "Look at the engagement. It's incredible..."
The Facebook Live video, however, suggests that Trump’s team isn’t even bothering to wait until after the election to pull this off.
So far, though, the operation looks pretty amateurish. The lighting was poor, the sound was messy, and the show featured former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer rambling aimlessly for way too long. It was not impressive.
Trump was asked about the Supreme Court. He immediately made the issue about himself.
The first question of the debate was about the Supreme Court — perhaps the biggest issue of the election. Clinton rattled off some of the important issues the Court could take on if she gets to appoint nominees: campaign finance, abortion, and LGBTQ issues.
Trump immediately turned the question to himself:
The Supreme Court, it's what it’s all about. Our country, it’s so, so, just so imperative that we have the right justices. Something happened recently where Justice Ginsburg made some very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people — many, many millions of people that I represent. And she was forced to apologize, and apologize she did. But these were statements that should never ever have been made.
For those that don’t know what this is about, read Vox’s explainer on what happened with Ginsburg.
As for the debate moment, this is classic Trump. As Kevin Drum noted at Mother Jones, Trump seems to be driven in large part by a constant need to get vengeance on people who criticize him. He’ll go after anyone who’s even a little critical — including a former Miss Universe, politicians, and, now, a Supreme Court justice.
And as Dara Lind wrote for Vox, the presidency would empower Trump to carry out this vendetta in some very frightening ways.
Clinton and Trump had a serious, substantial clash on abortion
When abortion came up, Trump and Clinton had a rare moment: an instance of serious, substantial discussion. And Clinton, for the first time on the debate stage, got very passionate in her response.
At the top, moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates to clarify their stances on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion nationwide:
WALLACE: What I'm asking you, sir, is do you want to see the Court overturn? You just said you want to see the Court protect the Second Amendment. Do you want to see the Court overturn Roe v. Wade?
TRUMP: If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that will happen. And that will happen automatically in my opinion because I'm putting pro-life justices on the Court. I will say this, it will go back to the states and the states will then make a determination.
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: I strongly support Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a constitutional right to a woman to make the most intimate, most difficult in many cases decisions about her health care that one can imagine. And in this case, it's not only about Roe v. Wade. It is about what's happening right now in America. So many states are putting very stringent regulations on women that block them from exercising that choice to the extent that they are defunding Planned Parenthood, which, of course, provides all kinds of cancer screenings and other benefits for women in our country.
And here is another part of the exchange, on partial-birth abortion:
TRUMP: I think it's terrible if you go with what Hillary is saying in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.
Now, you can say that that's okay, and Hillary can say that that's okay, but it's not okay with me. Because based on what she's saying and based on where she's going and where she's been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day. And that's not acceptable.
CLINTON: Well, that is not what happens in these cases. And using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate.
You should meet with some of the women that I've met with. Women I've known over the course of my life. This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. I do not believe the government should be making these decisions. I've been to countries where governments forced women to have abortions like they did in China or force women to bear children like they used to do in Romania. I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice, and I will stand up for that right.
Trump made a factual error: As Sarah Kliff explained for Vox, abortions don’t happen at nine months.
But the candidates’ answers still broadly got at the views of both sides on the abortion debate. Given the lack of substance in this election, it was a fairly good moment.
Clinton bullshitted on WikiLeaks
Clinton was asked about her leaked remarks to a Brazilian bank that her “dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”
Clinton’s answer was unpersuasive, to say the least:
Well, if you went on to read the rest of the sentence, I was talking about energy. You know, we trade more energy with our neighbors than we trade with the rest of the world combined. And I do want us to have an electric grid, energy system that crosses borders. I think that would be a great benefit to us.
But you are very clearly quoting from WikiLeaks, and what's really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans. They have hacked American websites, American accounts of private people, of institutions, then they have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the internet.
Who knows if Clinton secretly supports open borders? I certainly don’t. But Clinton’s answer did not come off as convincing. My reading of her remarks was that energy was an example of how open borders would work, not the entire substance.
The bigger issue, though, is that Clinton blatantly tried to distract from the question by going into how WikiLeaks obtained the leaked emails. The Russian hack is certainly troubling, but it’s a separate issue than what Clinton was asked about. It just wasn’t a good look.
Trump tried out some Spanish
Speaking on immigration, Trump said, “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out.” (“Hombres” is Spanish for “men.”)
The moment was awkward. Not only was Trump seemingly insulting Latino immigrants in their own language, but, as a fluent Spanish speaker, I can confirm his pronunciation was so bad that it was barely understandable.
Clinton called Trump Putin’s puppet
When Trump’s ties to Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin came up, this happened:
CLINTON: Well, that's because [Putin would] rather have a puppet as president.
TRUMP: No puppet, no puppet.
CLINTON: And it's pretty clear—
TRUMP: You're the puppet.
CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit—
TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.
“No, you!” is a time-honored comeback in preschools and kindergartens around the world. Unfortunately, it’s just not convincing on the presidential stage — especially because Trump has a lot of troubling ties to Russia, while Clinton doesn’t.
Trump’s sexual assault allegations came up — and Trump denied them completely
Over the past couple of weeks, the big election issue was the leaked 2005 tape showing Trump saying he can sexually assault women — “grab ’em by the pussy” — because of his celebrity status and the several women who have come out and accused Trump of sexual misconduct and assault.
Well, first of all, those stories have been largely debunked. Those people, I don't know those people. I have a feeling how they came. I believe it was her campaign that did it. Just like if you look at what came out today on the clips where I was wondering what happened with my rally in Chicago and other rallies where we had such violence. She is the one — and Obama — that caused the violence. They hired people. They paid them $1,500 and they're on tape saying be violent, cause fights, do bad things.
I would say the only way, because the stories are all totally false. I have to say that. And I didn't even apologize to my wife, who is sitting right here, because I didn't do anything. I didn't know any of these women. I didn't see these women. These women, the woman on the plane, I think they want either fame or her campaign did it. And I think it's her campaign. When I saw what they did, which is a criminal act, by the way, where they're telling people to go out and start fistfights and start violence, I tell you what, in particular in Chicago, people were hurt and people could have been killed in that riot.
It’s not clear what violence at Trump’s rallies has to do with sexual assault allegations. And it’s weird that Trump would emphasize that he did not apologize to his wife over this whole scandal.
It’s also not true that the allegations have been debunked. In fact, in the past week, People magazine published a follow-up article corroborating much of one accuser’s claims.
So it might not surprise you that no one, at least based on the response on social media, seemed to have their minds changed by Trump’s remarks.
Trump once again suggested that the election will be rigged
Later on in the debate, Wallace asked Trump about his baseless claims the election is “rigged” against him. As many people have explained, these claims are dangerous — successful democracies are built, in part, on people believing the results.
The exchange was not reassuring:
TRUMP: Excuse me, Chris, if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people registered to vote. This isn't coming from me, from fury report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote.
So let me just give you one other thing as I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I tell you one other thing. She shouldn't be allowed to run. She's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect, I say it's rigged. Because she should never -- Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails and so many other things.
WALLACE: Sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power. And that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner. But that the loser concedes to the winner, and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: What I'm saying is I'll tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?
So once he was warned just how dangerous his comments are here, Trump doubled down. He just doesn’t seem to care about the risks involved.
Trump called Clinton “a nasty woman”
Toward the end of the debate, Clinton was giving a pretty normal policy response about Social Security. In the process, she got in a small jab at Trump.
“I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security trust fund — that’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy,” she said. “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it.”
It was a reference to the reports that Trump once wrote off a loss so large that he may not have paid taxes for as much as 18 years. The suggestion being that if Trump got out of paying taxes before, he could dodge paying his Social Security taxes in the future, even if Clinton raises the payroll tax for the wealthy.
Trump did not appreciate it. “Such a nasty woman,” he said.
Once again, it bears emphasizing that this kind of behavior is simply not normal on the presidential debate stage. Normally, candidates may disagree, criticize, and get in some zingers, but direct insults like Trump’s are just weird. And it’s perhaps the last moment a mass audience will really remember from the 2016 campaigns.